Is the Obama presidency unraveling?
Both Republicans and Democrats are proving that they're completely out of touch.
THE SIGNS stapled to telephone poles and houses along Louisiana's Gulf coast said it all: "President Obama, BP took my money. Where's my change?"
The BP eco-catastrophe--and the utter failure of the federal government's response--are certainly driving discontent with Barack Obama and his administration. But they aren't the only issues where disappointment with a president who represented the hopes and expectations of millions of people is keenly felt--not by a long shot.
Obama's popularity rating has fallen to the lowest point in his 18 months in office. According to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 62 percent of people feel the country is on the wrong track, the highest level since before the election. Just one-third of those surveyed thought the economy will get better over the next year.
Will the right wing be the beneficiaries of this growing bitterness with the Obama presidency?
If you were to judge from Washington politics alone, the answer would probably be yes. After all, the right has been allowed to dominate much of the mainstream political discussion. Even the most commonsense appeal for an extension of unemployment benefits were met with an avalanche of resistance from Republican--but also some Democratic--lawmakers, who held up the measure until the last minute.
To add insult to injury, the main objection for many lawmakers was that the bill extending benefits would also begin to close a tax loophole for the rich--that was enough to justify their all-out opposition.
The fact that extending benefits to people suffering the effects of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression is even up for debate could lead you to ask who's really in control in Washington--the Obama administration that took office with the promise of change for working people or the Republicans who represent the opposite?
Or it could lead to another conclusion: The whole bunch is completely out of touch with the needs of working-class people.
This underlines the difference between politics from on high, as practiced in the halls of Congress, the White House and the corporate media--and politics from below that express the experiences of working-class people and the ideas they are moving toward. The gap between them today is wide and getting wider.
THIS ISN'T to say that what happens in mainstream politics is irrelevant. On the contrary, when the right wing is allowed to dominate the debate in Washington, they can get hearing for their ideas on a larger scale and make people on the left feel marginalized and isolated.
For instance, the fact that a small but well-funded group of Tea Party activists--preaching their message against government spending on social services--get so much face time on TV leads left-leaning people to feel less confident about the direction that public opinion is going in.
And even though the "populist" tea party movement is, in fact, disproportionately upper- and middle-class--76 percent have annual household incomes above $50,000, and one-fifth make more than $100,000, according to a New York Times poll--and largely an invention of the Republican Party establishment, still, their ideas can gain ground throughout the population. Thus, an April Rasmussen poll found that nearly half (48 percent) of Americans find some points with which to agree with the Tea Party.
But if right-wing ideas do get a hearing, the blame should also fall on Barack Obama and the Democrats for conceding and retreating again and again on the issues that are most important to their liberal base.
This goes to the heart of what the Democratic Party represents in the U.S. two-party system. It's seen as the party that stands for ordinary people and is committed to civil rights and liberal policies. That can lead to radical-sounding rhetoric, especially come election-time.
But when the Democrats take office, their job--as a party committed to the interests of Corporate America and the mainstream political establishment--is to uphold the status quo.
This means, for example, that the Democrats' campaign-trail promises that they would push for serious reform of the health care system evaporated once in power, when the priority became coming up with legislation that was acceptable to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Barack Obama's tough talk about Wall Street's excesses is nowhere to be found in a financial reform bill that will change very little about how the banker robbers operate.
In a situation like that, the right can gain ground--for one thing, because no one on the liberal end of the incredibly narrow spectrum of mainstream politics is challenging conservative ideas, and for another, because the Democrats' liberal base becomes disillusioned and demoralized.
But it's important to see that this doesn't necessarily mean the population as a whole is shifting to the right.
In fact, the Obama administration's inability to provide a solution to the crisis for workers can also translate into a leftward shift in public sentiment.
For instance, recent polls show that--contrary to the Tea Party agenda--ordinary people want the government to intervene more on behalf of poor and working class people. According to a recent poll, over half of respondents agreed with the idea that the government should take a larger and stronger role in making the economy work for average Americans--including creating jobs and training programs, helping cut health care costs and combating corporate greed, according the poll conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Center for Community Change and the Ms. Foundation for Women.
Remember that this result comes despite the tidal wave of rhetoric from conservative politicians and commentators that the Obama administration is presiding over budget-busting, big-government policies run amok--and the failure of any mainstream Democrat, including the White House, to call them out the right-wingers for their lies.
Instead, this poll result reflects workers' firsthand experiences of the economic crisis--slightly less than half of Americans worry that they, or someone in their household, will be out of a job in the next year, and more than half worry that they or a family member won't work enough hours so they can make ends meet.
THIS HIGHLIGHTS the inherent contradictions in the solutions of the right wing. The Republicans decry "big government" for hurting the "little guy"--which means they're for shredding the social programs that actually benefit the "little guy."
At the same time, however, the Democrats aren't proposing anything that represents a real alternative for workers--though they have plenty to offer Corporate America in the form of bailouts and watered-down financial reform.
No one within Washington politics will expose these fake solutions to the crisis for what they are--giveaways to the rich and austerity for the rest of us--much less provide genuine solutions. For that to happen, it will take a stronger left, organized from the grassroots.
In building that alternative, it's critical to be a part of the struggles that emerge over a number of issues that matter to working-class people.
From the vantage point of mainstream politics alone, the passage of the Arizona's anti-immigrant racial profiling bill SB 1070 exposed how racism and scapegoating has become acceptable in the mainstream political debate--and also how such ideas have gained a wider hearing, at least to some extent, as evidenced by the majority support for SB 1070 in opinion polls.
But at the same time, the outpouring of anger and resistance to the bigoted Arizona law among a core of people determined to stand up against bigotry shows the potential for shifting the mainstream political debate to our side. Immigrant rights supporters showed what the impact of the law would mean for all people--undocumented immigrants as well as documented--and began organizing a fight that depends on solidarity, not division.
This isn't the only area where people are recognizing the need for solidarity to find a way forward. Like LGBT activists who are organizing support for union hotel workers' boycott in San Francisco, alerting visitors for LGBT Pride Week not to stay in boycotted hotels. Or union dockworkers and Palestinian solidarity activists who stood together and stopped an Israeli ship from unloading for 24 hours at the Port of Oakland.
These small actions give a glimpse of future bigger struggles to come. But to reach those bigger struggles, the organizing has to begin now.